Democratic Rep. Laments Lack Of Leadership Amid NC Budget Battle

Jul 14, 2019

Rep. Billy Richardson (D-Cumberland) is said to be one of several Democrats that the North Carolina House's GOP leadership hopes to lure to its side a vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper's budget veto.
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC

Billy Richardson has a distinct rasp to his voice. That voice, plus his reddened eyes and ruddy complexion, give the Cumberland County Democrat an air of weariness.

"I’ve been talking to everybody until I’m blue in the face and I'm going to keep doing that," said the state representative, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters asking him if it is true that he has been whipping up Democratic votes in support of a veto override.

"No," is Richardson's answer to that question. "I have two jobs as a representative. One is to represent the people and the interests of my district and yeah, I'll negotiate on behalf of the people in my district because I live in a district in sore need of many things."

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republican-backed budget late last month. He and other Democrats object to a proposed corporate tax cut. They also want the spending plan to allow for expanding Medicaid coverage. Republicans argue their spending plan is fiscally responsible while investing in school construction, increasing teacher pay, and providing disaster relief.

If all members of the 120-seat house were present, Republicans would need seven Democrats to cross party lines to get the three-fifths needed for an override.

But Richardson didn't want to talk about the budget battle; he preferred to sound the alarm on what he sees as bigger threats.

For one, the fifth-term representative is unhappy with how the Cooper administration has handled protecting his district from industrial pollution. The state Department of Environmental Quality has entered a court-sanctioned agreement with Chemours. Under the agreement, the chemical manufacturer must reduce emissions of the emerging contaminant, GenX, and pay for protecting drinking water.

Residential wells in Cumberland and Bladen counties have been tainted by airborne GenX.

Richardson said the Chemours plant should be shut down and its executives held accountable, even through criminal prosecution.

So, does that mean Richardson will join Republicans in overriding Cooper's budget veto?

Not necessarily, but Richardson lamented a lack of leadership in both parties and a failure to confront looming problems, such as adapting the state's education system to a changing economy.

"Your teachers having to work two jobs rather than doing lesson plans and we're still in an agrarian model of education in an information age," Richardson said. "Am I crazy or is something wrong here?"

Richardson said he wants state leaders to hold summits on those issues as well as infrastructure needs and what to do about a gas-tax funded transportation system with electric cars on the rise.

"The North Carolina I knew and loved, and know and love, is a state that seizes the opportunity," Richardson said.

"It's the Terry Sanford that says, 'You may crucify me for raising the sales tax on food but I'm going to give us a community college system,'" he added, naming the former Democratic governor and U.S. Senator.

Is it true, the reporters pressed Richardson, that the Republican leadership is offering to move the state Department of Health and Human Services headquarters to his district in exchange for his yes vote on an override?

"Well, if it is I’m going to look at it," Richardson responded, "because, you know, I’ve got a county that needs jobs."

Richardson ultimately would not say how he will vote. He said he hopes his constituents know he would never do anything to hurt the Democratic Party because he has been a Democrat his entire life. But above all, Richardson added,  he is a North Carolinian and an American with a "sacred" responsibility to act in the best interest of his constituents and the people of the state.